I’ll try not to be as callow or preening as Donald Trump, taking congrats and high fives. But I do think the last few weeks confirm a point I made back in early Spring. There’s no magic to Trump’s political showmanship. The magic we saw through the Spring was a unique bond, a sort of mindmeld of white backlash and derp Trump built on an inspired intuition into the mind of the base of the Republican party. Provocation and offense didn’t hurt Trump because, as I argued at the time, he was preaching to an audience that yearned for both as positive goods. Campaigning in front of a general election audience today it’s all working quite differently. Over the last two days I heard report after report from our team on Capitol Hill about Senators who were refusing to answer questions about Trump, simply walking away when asked about him, or in a growing number of cases, after his harrowing and unhinged speech on Monday, openly attacking him. The Post has a good roundup of the latter out yesterday evening.
Over the last couple weeks we’ve had the Trump University expose, the racist tirades against “Mexican” Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the resurrection of the ban on Muslim immigration which only a month ago Trump dismissed as “just a suggestion”, insinuations that President Obama may be collaborating with terrorists and a spew of self-congratulation, incitement and unseemly antics in the wake of a national tragedy that even a number of Republicans who’ve endorsed Trump have termed ‘disgraceful.’
It’s been a rough run of weeks.
Indeed, after fulminating for two days against The Washington Post (and pulling their press credentials) for reporting that he suggested President Obama is in league with terrorists, he’s back today tweeting out a conspiracy theory that Yes! Obama is in fact in league with terrorists. He is unable or unwilling to be clear from one hour to the next about who he’s angry at.
What’s most telling about this is that so little has been due to bad luck or news events out of Trump’s control. With the partial exception of the release of the Trump University documents, it’s been almost entirely from Trump himself. A month ago Republican elected officials were unenthusiastically but resolutely rallying around Trump. Since then they’ve slowly been reduced to a public and political version of a family dealing with a hopeless addict or a degenerate gambler. They keep saying, insisting he’ll change, only to have him provide more evidence he can’t, won’t and has no intention to. Their very indulgence seems to prompt more unbridled behavior.
The disgraceful way Trump handled the hours after the Orlando atrocity seems to have confirmed for many Republicans that Trump will never change or pivot or whatever other phrase we’re now using. It’s not an act. It’s him. How this couldn’t have been clear months ago is a topic for the psychology of denial and wishful thinking. But now it seems clear.
No single poll should ever carry that much weight. But yesterday’s Bloomberg Poll, which is actually in line with the trend of polls of recent weeks, will probably serve as a wake-up call for where things could go. (ABC and CBS both have polls out this morning which lack ‘horse race’ numbers – probably coming soon – but show equally devastating favorability numbers for Trump.) The GOP might pay a catastrophic price for months with the party headed by a man who is erratic, morally rudderless, mercurial and emotionally unstable – and that on his better days.
Back in December, Trump’s initial call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States did him no harm, though a few Republicans noted they did not agree with him. Today it’s being routinely denounced by Republicans, even in the aftermath of an attack one might suppose would leave people open to such extreme measures. In front of a different audience, a different electorate, Trump looks like a racist candidate, who is temperamentally erratic and routinely proposing unhinged policies – and with pretty much the results you’d expect.
The question is how long this can last. Pretty much daily, major Republican leaders don’t just disagree with Trump but denounce him in pretty round terms, even as they remain at least nominal endorsers of his candidacy and accept him as the leader of their party. That is entirely unprecedented in modern American political history.
It doesn’t seem sustainable.
Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), engaged in what looks like a losing battle with former Sen. Russ Feingold, is the canary in a coal mine on this front. Johnson is the least shrewd endangered Republican Senator up for reelection this year. He got behind Trump early and left GOP lobbyists heads shaking when he told them he planned to ride the Garland blockade to victory. He’s not the sharpest tool in the Senate GOP shed. When he’s running from Trump, in a state that is at the center of the ‘Trump break out in the industrial midwest’ election model, you know there’s trouble.
I’m not saying and I don’t think Republicans will deny Trump the nomination in Cleveland. I don’t think that’s possible. They’re stuck with him. But the current situation is too unstable to hold. You can’t have the Speaker of the House endorsing the party’s presidential candidate and also calling him a racist for very long. Something has to give. This is especially true because I see little to suggest the run of punches will end any time soon. Again, Trump U., Curiel, mass casualty high fives, accusing the President of collaborating with terrorists. The hits just keep coming. They keep coming because Trump is Trump. And in front of an audience not focused on provocation, resentment and white backlash it does not always play well.
I don’t know where this goes. But the current set up is too unstable to hold.